People of every background now rely on the web and digital devices to run their daily lives. That’s why it’s crucial to create barrier-free online environments and digital devices for everyone, regardless of their abilities. And that’s precisely why digital accessibility exists. 

But digital accessibility is still evolving, and many people have made significant sacrifices and contributions that paved the way for a better digital experience. And there’s still a long way to go, despite how far we’ve come. 

Inclusivity in the digital world wouldn’t be possible without the disability activism of past generations. So let’s look at protest movements that broke down physical barriers and led to the improvements in digital inclusion we see today. 

We start with a landmark 1970s protest movement that helped start it all.

Curb-Cut Effect: The “Slab of Concrete Heard ‘Round the World”

It was intimidating for people in wheelchairs to get around any American city in the 1970s. Even though the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required government buildings to provide universal accessibility, those in wheelchairs traveled streets full of obstacles. 

But people in wheelchairs were tired of being overlooked and underserved. And it all came to a head one evening for Michael Pachovas, his friends, and eventually, the United States. In the early 1970s in Berkeley, California, this group of activists in wheelchairs applied cement to streetside curbs, creating makeshift ramps. It was a political act of resistance that would come with the threat of arrest by local police. 

However, the arrest threat never materialized, and the slanting curbs offered street mobility to people with disabilities for the first time. Then, with mounting pressure from disabled activists, Berkeley placed its first curb cut on the Telegraph Avenue intersection in 1972. One local proponent dubbed it the “slab of concrete heard ‘round the world.” 

The curb-cut effect also rippled its way across the nation. Numerous American cities installed thousands more curb cuts in response to the efforts in Berkeley. The positive impact was immediately evident and still is today. All citizens, including people in wheelchairs, benefit from the increased accessibility. Stroller-pushing parents, travelers wheeling luggage, runners, skateboarders, and bike riders now use curb cuts daily.

As the next section explains, the curb-cut effect ultimately laid the groundwork for another landmark legislation nearly 20 years later. 

Capitol Crawl and the ADA: A Giant Legislative Leap

On March 13, 1990, over 1,000 people marched to the U.S. Capitol, demanding Congress pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). About 60 left their wheelchairs and crawled to the top of the west Capitol entrance on the National Mall. 

Roughly 1,000 other protesters watched as members of Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit ( ADAPT) jumped to the ground and started crawling. Some climbed on their own, friends and family helped others as allies, onlookers, and press members cheered in support. 

The “Capitol Crawl” showed how inaccessible infrastructure impacts people with disabilities. It also pressured Congress to pass the ADA, and George H.W. Bush signed it into law on July 26, 1990. This legislation led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which requires that public buildings and services be accessible to people with disabilities. 

How It All Led to Digital Inclusion & Legislation

The ADA was a significant milestone but didn’t address digital accessibility. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that digital accessibility began to be discussed more seriously in the disability rights community. In 1998, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0, which outlined the basic principles of web accessibility. 

WCAG 1.0 was the first significant attempt to create a set of standards for digital accessibility. It was followed by WCAG 2.0 in 2008 and WCAG 2.1 in 2018. These guidelines are the foundation for many laws and regulations enacted to ensure digital accessibility

In the United States, the most significant legislation related to digital accessibility is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It requires that all federal websites, applications, and digital documents be accessible to people with disabilities. 

Naturally, digital accessibility standards also directly relate to various organizations and academic institutions. 

Digital Accessibility: Crucial For Business & Education

In recent years, digital accessibility has become a major priority for businesses, and yours should be no different. Companies increasingly recognize the need to make their websites and digital assets accessible to people with disabilities. It’s a legally wise and sound business strategy that can help you reach a wider audience and increase your customer base. That’s why assistive technology tools will only become more critical as compliance laws tighten and the demand for inclusivity grows.  

Digital accessibility is also becoming increasingly vital in education. Many universities and schools are investing in digital inclusion initiatives to ensure their students can access related materials. Moreover, educational institutions are also developing policies and procedures to make their websites, applications, and digital documents more accessible. 

One thing is sure: digital accessibility is here to stay. So, no matter what kind of organization you own or work for, it’s time to give web inclusivity the attention it deserves.

The checklist below is an excellent blueprint for getting your website on the right path.  

Examples of Digital Accessibility

1. Navigation

Intuitive Tab-Through Sequence: tabbing should move logically across address bars, navigation menus, form fields, hyperlinks, and all content sections predictably and understandably.

Landmarks: website code includes these labels as navigation indicators for end users. Think of them as landmarks that help you get around a local community. A navbar menu label enables screen readers to spot and announce that landmark. This info helps screen reader users access the menu without having to listen to the text.                       

2. Hyperlinks

Readability: some hyperlink addresses consist of long number and symbol strings, which are hard to digest for screen reader users. So, it’s best to use straightforward language instead of simply listing web addresses.

Distinction: links should be easy to identify in any block of text. As such, underlined, using bold and italicized text for links can clearly distinguish them from surrounding content. 

3. Text

Font Size: Give users the option to increase or decrease the font sizes on your site. Also, ensure your font sizes work seamlessly with all mobile and digital devices. 

Color Contrast: Follow WCAG 2.0 guidelines that spell out color-contrast ratios for different text sizes. 

4. Images

Alt Text: These image descriptions help people with visual disabilities understand graphical website elements. They should be a mandatory dev requirement for any modern website. 

Decorative Images: This pertains to any image that isn’t necessary to convey the content of a webpage. So, there’s no need to convey these images, and it’s best to skip them as a courtesy. 

5. Multimedia

Video: Always provide captioning and transcripts for deaf people or people with other hearing-related impairments. Likewise, offer audio descriptions of video elements for blind people or those with other vision-related conditions.

Movement: Animations, alerts, and other elements that move may distract users with particular cognitive disabilities. You should also provide a non-animated version of your site, including the option to pause or negate animation.  

Conclusion: Let’s Learn from History

The passage of the ADA in 1990 and the release of the WCAG 1.0 in 1998 were significant accessibility milestones. In recent years, digital accessibility has become a major priority for businesses, organizations, municipalities, and educational institutions. As technology evolves, it will remain essential to creating an inclusive, barrier-free digital environment for people with disabilities.

But let’s not forget the origin story of this long journey. Always remember those that used the power of protest to create a sea change for people with disabilities. This movement started in the physical world, and it’s evolved into the digital universe, but there’s still much work to be done.

Only a tiny percentage of the web currently accommodates people with disabilities, the most significant global minority. Yet, companies can integrate numerous tech tools to increase accessibility and conformance. So, let’s get together and do our part to make inclusivity the expected norm for all future generations.

What’s a good first step? First, make UserWay an essential part of your business strategy.

UserWay: Solving All of Your Digital Accessibility Needs

UserWay’s sole purpose is to make the digital world accessible to people of all abilities. With a full suite of AI tools, legal services, and more, UserWay can help any business be more inclusive of all end users, and that’s one way to make a better world.

Learn how we can work together to make the digital world better for everyone. 

Digital accessibility banner

Common FAQs

Nobody Complains About My Site: Does Accessibility Still Matter? 

It matters because people with disabilities have difficulty reporting problems on an inaccessible website. And they’re more likely to leave an inaccessible site without getting the necessary answers. You usually only get one chance to impress any end user, so digital accessibility is crucial.

What’s The Best Accessibility Standard to Follow?

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 at the AA is the gold standard. Therefore, you must meet all criteria at the A and AA levels to be compliant.

What about Section 508?

Section 508 is a critical portion of the Rehabilitation Act that dictates ICT must be accessible to people with disabilities. And it’s important to note that 508 is legally required and not only a tech spec for guidance. In addition, WCAG 2.0 AA also adheres to Section 508 requirements.